Thomas Kinkade Was the World's Biggest Selling Painter. Art for Everybody Asks Why.

Shedding light on the superstar of schmaltz

It's a lush garden in the full bloom of spring, a hidden bench under a tree revealed by a shaft of sunlight. It's a towering lighthouse above a rocky coast, a bright beacon of guidance and safety. More often than not, it's a rustic cottage nestled in the countryside at twilight, just across that bridge over the babbling brook. That's the world of artist Thomas Kinkade.

“Kinkade did what Andy Warhol wanted to do.” – Miranda Yousef

That world exploded onto the walls of millions of American homes in the early Nineties. This was the pre-internet cable TV heyday, and Kinkade was a superstar artist/entrepreneur on the QVC shopping channel, constantly selling out not only prints of his oil paintings (stretched onto canvas for that added tactile appeal), but just about anything and everything it was possible to place an image on: quilts and coffee mugs, sure, but also plates, ornaments, 3D dioramas, La-Z-Boy recliners, bank cards, furniture and figurines, and for the real connoisseur, a down payment on a house in a Kinkade-inspired subdivision in Northern California. At the apex of his career, Kinkade often bragged that 1 in 20 households had his artwork in it. This is a $100 million enterprise, publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange. This is also being pointedly ignored by art critics, but Kinkade's themes of "Family and God and Country and Beauty" resonated with white, Christian, middle Americans who were getting riled up by Jesse Helms and Robert Mapplethorpe, Piss Christ, and National Endowment for the Arts grants. The culture wars? Kinkade shoved himself to the front lines of the early skirmishes.

Putting this in context is acclaimed editor Miranda Yousef's feature debut, Art for Everybody, premiering at the SXSW 2023 Film & TV Festival. It's not just a portrait of Kinkade but of a moment in time that remains startlingly familiar almost 30 years later. "He was this larger-than-life figure, and his story is almost a Greek tragedy," Yousef says. "But [the film] also provided a way in to talk about these big ideas, like what is art? Who gets to decide that? The politicization of taste. How our culture and our politics create each other. It felt relevant in a timeless way."

Comprising interviews with his family, friends, and members of the contemporary art cognoscenti, Art for Everybody follows a classic rise and fall trajectory: poverty and a broken home segueing into an unsatisfying stint as an art student at UC Berkeley, landing on his style – born of the Hudson River School artists of the 19th century – and finding overwhelming success by creating his own brand as the trademarked "Painter of Light" (a title previously held by J.M.W. Turner, who should have had better lawyers), a move Yousef finds incredibly prescient. "Kinkade did what Andy Warhol wanted to do," she says. "He was innovative and ahead of his time in utilizing artistic reproductive technologies of the time to just get his image out there as much as possible. Nowadays, we see all these artist collabs, like Yayoi Kusama doing Louis Vuitton, Tom Sachs making shoes for Nike. The most successful artists have their imagery on credit cards, like Kehinde Wiley and his work for Amex. Kinkade was already doing that."

But, you know, is it art? Yousef laughs. "I'm not entirely sure it matters."

Documentary Spotlight

Art for Everybody

World Premiere

Mon 13, 5:45pm, Alamo South Lamar

Wed 15, 8:45pm, Stateside

Thu 16, 12:30 & 1pm Violet Crown Cinema

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

SXSW Adds Ho99o9, Kikuo, Sofia Kourtesis to 2024 Music Lineup
SXSW Adds Ho99o9, Kikuo, Sofia Kourtesis to 2024 Music Lineup
243 artists make up the festival’s second artist announcement

Carys Anderson, Dec. 6, 2023

SXSW Film Review: <i>Monolith</i>
Film Review: Monolith
Australian audio-horror builds tone through sound

Richard Whittaker, March 24, 2023

More by Josh Kupecki
She Is Conann
Barbaric vision of how aging means eating your own youth.

Feb. 2, 2024

The Zone of Interest
Jonathan Glazer's Holocaust drama is powerfully distancing

Jan. 12, 2024


SXSW 2023, Art for Everybody, Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light, Miranda Yousef

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle